Meet the producer, Johnny Irion
WASHINGTON — Johnny Irion has an addiction.
"I'm like a musical junkie," the 49-year-old singer-songwriter said Wednesday, pacing in the Washington home he shares with his singer-songwriter wife, Sarah Lee Guthrie, and their two daughters, 16-year-old Olivia and 11-year-old Sophia.
The highs don't merely stem from solo performances and writing. The stronger jolts often arise from collaborations, their potency increased exponentially with each transfer of creative comprehension. Take, for example, Irion's recent pre-production sessions with The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, the Americana group that is set to record its first full-length album later this month.
"When we were working on stuff, I would hear something and then relay that, and then somebody would get excited about that exchange, and then it actually becomes something that makes somebody else have fun," he said. " ... I'm addicted to that."
Irion is the album's producer. These days, producer can be an amorphous role. Once loosely akin to a cameraperson, record producer became a more involved position in the mid-20th century as technological gains facilitated multi-tracking and other editing capabilities. Producers started picking and refining songs for a record, shaping a group's sonic landscape along the way. George Martin, for instance, became known as the "Fifth Beatle," serving as a creative authority for the English revolutionaries, and the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson emerged as a production innovator, paving the way for Rick Rubin and other contemporary producers to advance their concepts in popular sound.
Still, some producers can be more hands-off, delegating and focusing solely on a record's business potential rather than its artistic value. Irion is not one of them. He has been fortunate to work with artist-centric producers, he said, and he feels that the role is, first and foremost, about generating "an amazing-sounding album with an amazing batch of songs." He also mentioned a more abstract objective for producers.
"I think they're supposed to take your career to another level in every aspect of the business and the art," he said.
'I have to be close to that'
Managing personalities is vital to achieving that goal. Irion began developing that skill while waiting tables during his youth in Durham, N.C. His parents, Ann and John, ran a Village Inn Pizza Parlor there. Irion's late grandfather, Fred Knight, had bought into the chain, first opening one in South Carolina.
"It went gangbusters," Irion said, strumming a guitar on his couch.
But Knight wasn't just a businessman. He was the lead tenor in the 1940s Broadway musical, "Oklahoma!"
"He was an incredible singer. He and Tony Bennett had the same voice coach," Irion recalled.
Knight, then with the last name Paladino, played football at Duke University until a knee injury sidelined him and introduced him to a nursing student named Rubilee. The two had children and married, moving to South Carolina. (Rubilee's parents weren't keen on Paladino's Italian heritage, so he changed his last name to Knight.) Their love for music — Rubilee was a classically trained violinist — helped spark Irion's own ardor for sound.
"They were always really supportive of anything I did," Irion said.
Irion's parents, however, didn't encourage a career in song.
"I had to literally sneak to play music around my parents," he recalled.
As a child, Irion's best friend was Zeke Hutchins, who now manages Leon Bridges and Sharon Van Etten, among others. They shared a similar passion for tunes, including some California rockers and other icons.
"When we were 5 and 6, we would stand on top of the fireplace, at the edge, and pretend we were the Beach Boys or pretend we were The Beatles or pretend we were The Cars," Irion said.
Irion didn't play music, though, during his early years. Knight died when he was 10, leading to more difficult times at home.
"He was the rock of the family. He employed everyone, and it reminds me a lot of — I think that was one thing that really made me feel at home within the Guthrie family — Arlo's very much like my grandfather in a sense," Irion said.
He was sent to Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., where, against the odds, he fully realized his desire to be a musician. He heard someone playing bass in a recreational room one time.
"I was like, 'I've got to figure that out,'" he recalled. "'I have to be close to that.'"
'I looked at Arlo as a teacher'
He began working on his own bass skills. When he returned home, he started a group with Hutchins and another friend, Ryan Pickett. The band later added bassist Chris Hollaway. Irion moved to guitar, and Queen Sarah Saturday was formed. The group eventually toured with The Charlatans in Europe. The trip offered a primer on road life for Irion, who later traveled with The Black Crowes on its "Amorica" tour when he played guitar for Dillon Fence.
"That was a big deal. [The Black Crowes] were huge. They were at the top of rock excess ... cocaine, models, limos," he said.
Jimmy Page and Robert Plant often hung out with the group's entourage.
"And here I am from North Carolina, asking somebody if they have a Budweiser. I definitely graduated onto Guinness on that tour," said Irion, who has invited The Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman to play with the Roadshow on its upcoming record.
Irion called the tour a "life-changing" experience because he became friends with Chris Robinson. The Black Crowes singer was living in Los Angeles at the time, producing a group from Monterey, Calif., that he invited Irion to join. About a week before Irion left for LA in 1997, The Black Crowes were playing in Raleigh, N.C., as a part of the Furthur Festival, which Arlo Guthrie was emceeing. Sarah Lee was her father's road manager at the time. Irion met her backstage and learned that she would also be moving to LA. The two soon began dating out West. Irion toured up and down the coast and even appeared in some movies, including "Ghost World" with Steve Buscemi and Scarlett Johansson. But by 2000, he wasn't getting his musical fix, rarely playing profitable concerts.
"I just got fed up. I had been there two-and-a-half years. Sarah Lee and I were getting serious," he said.
One night, he expressed his frustration to Arlo, who encouraged him to return to the East Coast. Irion and Sarah Lee married in 1999 and moved to the Berkshires in 2000.
But winter was difficult.
"It's too remote," Irion recalled thinking.
The couple settled in Columbia, S.C., where they raised Olivia for about six years. Blending folk, rock, blues and country, the lovers started playing as a duo. Marrying into musical royalty became an education for Irion.
"As things started to progress, I basically was going to musical college. I feel like that was that experience for me. I never went to college. I looked at Arlo as a teacher, a father-in-law and a musician, but I guess, first of all, I looked at him as a father-in-law and soon realized that it's just better to look at him as a person," Irion said.
He certainly wouldn't be viewing "Alice's Restaurant" with the family at Thanksgiving.
"I actually put that in one year, and everybody was like, 'What the f---?'" Irion recalled.
Irion brought his own familial artistic clout. Irion's great-uncle was novelist John Steinbeck.
"Me being a link between these two families was super weird for years because people would think I'm some Rhodes Scholar," Irion said. "And I'm just like, 'I'm a guitar player, man. I'm a musician, and I want to write good songs.'"
Through Sarah Lee, he learned how Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger wrote protest tunes.
"Pete told me, 'You don't want to be too teach-y preachy,'" Irion recalled.
Irion released his first solo record, "Unity Lodge," in 2001, leading to some European touring before he and Sarah Lee dropped "Exploration" (2005), "Bright Examples" (2011) and "Wassaic Way" (2013), among other collaborations. Greg Smith, a member of The Whiskey Treaty Roadshow, once opened for the duo about 15 years ago and was "blown away" by their harmonies.
"It's not all that often that a guy will step in and do these beautiful harmonies higher than a woman he's singing with," Smith said of Irion.
Smith spoke with him afterward.
"He just had a super-chill, appreciative, gentle vibe about him, and it's still the same today," Smith said.
Wilco members Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone produced "Wassaic Way" for the couple, who now call the Berkshires home after a brief stint in Santa Barbara, Calif. Sansone will play guitar on the Roadshow's record. For band member Chris Merenda, who has known Irion for the better part of two decades, the singer-songwriter's prolific studio work and "great ear" are the primary reasons he backed Irion as producer, but he also values Irion's connections.
"He's got some great networking capabilities," Merenda said.
Following "Wassaic Way," Irion earned critical acclaim for his vocals on U.S. Elevator's eponymous 2016 record, and his third solo album, 2018's "Driving Friend," has also garnered some attention.
"I'm at halftime right now with 'Driving Friend,'" said Irion, a former football player. "There'll be another tour and video."
'Let's make a great record'
For the time being, his focus is on the Roadshow. In addition to Merenda, Irion has been friends with member Billy Keane for years; he didn't know the rest of the group: Smith, Tory Hanna and David Tanklefsky.
"There's only 12 people in the world," Irion said of how he intends to build a rapport with them.
Keane broached the idea of bringing Irion into the fold.
"He's so energetic and positive about things that it's hard not to get inspired talking to him," Keane said.
But Keane also appreciated that Irion was a realist.
"When you're in the music industry, there's 1,000 people that will tell you they'll produce your album, and it's finding that one guy that actually can that's the trick," Keane said. "When I was talking to him about the process, he never talked about the end results, which was interesting. He always talked about the process, the timeline, who he's going to bring onto the album, recording it to tape, what type of sonic field we should have, what kind of effect it should bring out — all these very important facts. He was never like, 'Oh man, we're going to sell a million copies,' which, once you hear that, you should be like, 'Hey, get the f--- out of here, that's ridiculous.'"
Part of Irion's job is managing expectations about an album's effect on the group's trajectory, especially since the path to musical success isn't well-mapped today.
"The whole thing has changed, so my thing going in is like, 'Yes, let's make a great record.' But that is really not the key to: 'It's going to make all your lives different,'" Irion said. "It's going to help, but consistently putting out great sounding stuff instead of live whatever, and great video content, and touring, and having a great record, and getting reviewed — it all adds up."
With technical assistance from engineer Grant Wicks and various Berkshire locals providing logistical support, Irion knows that producing an album is a team effort. His guidance must draw from his strengths and experiences in the business, though.
"I want to make the record I know how to make with these guys," he said. "I don't really know how to make what 'The Pulse' plays. I'm not a computer guy. I like people playing in the room together. I love parts. I want the band to be a band. I want people to leave the live show and be like, 'Dude, the record's awesome.'"
Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at email@example.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.
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